Tom Clancy's squad-based shooters are a unique and rarely imitated breed of cerebral action games that have carved out a comfortable niche of fans with realistic tactical action blended with Clancy's typical war-themed narratives. Despite numerous iterations, none of them are very different from each other, and the latest, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon, is no exception. It plays the same as most any Clancy shooter, with some refinements, streamlining of the pre-mission planning and a more brisk pace compared to that of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six. It had been a while since I'd picked up one of these enjoyable simulations, and the trip was well worth the time. Ghost Recon is tense, challenging, and highly rewarding. A few minor weaknesses keep it from being a real step forward for the genre, but it's a finely crafted game nonetheless.
Set in the near future, Ghost Recon puts you in control of two squads of soldiers assigned to carry out a series of surgical strikes at an ultranationalist organization bent on reestablishing the Soviet empire. Locales range from farmhouses to dilapidated inner cities to dense forests, among others, and are nicely varied. I was always impressed with the feeling of realism, from subtle graphical and audio effects to the deliberate pacing of the game. It's certainly a refreshing break from typical first-person shooters.
Ghost Recon is largely similar to the Rainbow Six games with some key changes that make the game more accessible but may disappoint fans who enjoyed the immense attention to detail (not to imply that Ghost Recon is lacking) of that game. On starting a game, you choose your squad members for your two teams (Alpha and Bravo). You choose from one of four pre-set arms kits and jump right into the mission. You do a great deal less item management and pre-mission planning, which I felt diluted the experience somewhat. I would have preferred the option to streamline my setups, rather than being forced to. During the mission, can control your teams' aggressiveness, direct their movements, and command them to advance, hold, or advance at all costs. As per Clancy's m.o., your soldiers are far from supermen. A clean shot in the right spot will take them out at any moment. Movement is realistic, with sidestepping and backstepping being markedly slower than advancing. Enemies will spot you much more easily when you are standing, so crouching or crawling is almost always the most practical method for advancement. Weapon accuracy is also subject to a soldier's level of experience and decreases significantly during movement or with rapid fire. Under fire, the best tactic is usually to hit the dirt and plant a well-aimed shot in your enemy's vital organs.
My only true disappointment with Ghost Recon is the lack of control over your teammates. While you can do a lot, there are a few things you can't do that were done exceptionally well in another recent tactical shooter, Conflict: Desert Storm. While you can direct your teams, you cannot control individual team members. Your compatriots will follow you around and mimic your movements (looking where you look, crouching when you crouch, etc.), but unlike in Conflict, you can't command an individual soldier to move to a specific location and face a given direction. So it becomes impossible to, say, send your sniper to a high point and have your heavy gunner give you cover as you advance for an assault. Additionally, you cannot control the aggressiveness of team members easily. Often, I wanted to advance a sniper for recon while I set up an attack, but was forced instead to advance an entire team. The computer-controlled team will also not display much in the way of convincing squad tactics. They move and act as a group in all situations, despite the fact that each team is often composed of soldiers with radically different skills. This can be remedied somewhat by composing teams of similar soldiers (a long-range team of two snipers and a gunner, for example), but circumstances often arise that demand a more balanced team and the resulting lack of control hurts the game significantly.
This isn't to say that the single player game is poorly done—far from it. It is highly challenging and a successful mission is highly satisfying. But with the inability to direct individual teammates, the focus gets shifted to the game's multiplayer options. Cooperative, team, and solo games (for the truly experienced player) with a variety of excellent multiplayer maps and options out the wazoo make Ghost Recon a game best enjoyed with friends. The Xbox and PC versions have a rather decisive advantage over the PlayStation 2 edition by featuring online play. Assuming you have are able to track down a full roster of well-behaved buddies over the Internet, the game becomes a different beast entirely. Most notably, you can play through the single-player campaign over the Internet, effectively negating the problems with the computer-controlled soldiers. Nevertheless, this assumes you're able to find enough players to fill each squad, and so even with all of the excellent multiplayer options, being able to control each individual soldier would have made a significant difference.
Ghost Recon is another fine Clancy shooter, and should satisfy fans of the series while remaining accessible enough to win a few new fans as well. But it's not quite forward-thinking enough to be remarkable, only a solid game that is perhaps a bit too similar to the previous Clancy games. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Raven Shield.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.